Written By: Isabelle
Edited By: Nisha Rajoo
Blog Cover Designed By: Angelia Gan
To anyone who has ever said that women can’t do mathematics,
There’s no point hiding my thoughts on this subject – you’re wrong. Maria Agnesi, Marayam Mirzakhani, and Sophie Germain are women who have not only revolutionised their respective fields and contributed immensely to human knowledge and our everyday lives, but have done so via mathematics. Shocking, I know. In the wake of such incredible women, you’d think that I wouldn’t have to worry about writing a letter like this to people like you, but, unfortunately, I still do.
There’s a whole Wikipedia page full of women who didn’t just ‘do mathematics’, but who are trailblazers in their own right. Emmy Noether revolutionised modern abstract algebra – even if the Mathematical Institute of Erlangen refused to pay her for seven years. Karen Uhlenbeck, the first female Abel Prize winner, founded the field of geometric analysis, despite noting herself the lack of female role models in mathematics. Daina Taimina is an innovative geometry teacher who also is well-known for creating crocheted models of hyperbolic space (seriously, take a look, they’re awesome). I could go on, but my point remains that there is an incredible array of women in mathematics.
If anything, many of their achievements are all the more remarkable given they were achieved despite the patriarchal opposition they faced.
But the thing is, despite all these examples of brilliant women, you still don’t quite seem to believe that ‘ordinary’ women can. I could highlight every single incredible woman who has ever done mathematics, but you’d have the same response. These women are exceptions, you seem to say. Most mathematicians are men for a reason, you imply. Most women just can’t, you conclude.
It’s far too easy for this (incorrect) conclusion to spread; merely another socially accepted assumption about women going unquestioned. But actually, if you start doing just a little bit of research, you will come across a recent study of 1.6 million different grades which indicates that male and female students perform similarly in STEM subjects, leading the authors to conclude that large gaps in the representation of women in STEM careers ‘are not due to differences in academic performance’. They go further to argue that the top 10% of a STEM classroom is likely to contain equal numbers of male and female students.
You ask: So, why then do countries with increased gender parity tend to see less women in mathematics? I will admit that this puzzles me, too. There are some suggestions that this discrepancy can be attributed to the greater disparity in performance when it comes to non-STEM subjects (like English), leading girls to feel more confident in pursuing non-STEM careers, but I suspect it’s a little more complex than that. Take for example Maryjane Wraga’s study: when women were told that they typically performed better at a mental rotation task, which normally favours men, their performance suddenly improved. Similarly, when all participants were told that their respective genders performed the worst, their performance worsened. Waga theorises that when someone experiences a ‘stereotype threat’, mental resources are diverted to dealing with the associated anxiety rather than performing the task at hand, leading to a decline in their performance.
I’m not using this study to argue that we should go around telling people that men are bad at mathematics so that women can perform better at it – we know that women can do mathematics.
Instead, you need to stop telling women that they can’t do mathematics, because we’re generating a vicious cycle.
As a woman who has been told, ‘You can't do mathematics’, when you do make a mistake, as all mathematicians do, you’re suddenly not just making a mistake you can learn from, but fulfilling a prophecy. Fulfil a prophecy enough times, and funnily enough mathematics becomes stressful and discouraging – and not because you are genuinely bad at it, but because you’ve been told that you should be.
So let me perhaps rephrase.
To anyone who has ever discouraged women from fulfilling their dreams of pursuing a career in mathematics:,
As a mathematician, I can state with 100% certainty that whatever argument you make to justify your position is utterly baseless.
Incredible female mathematicians are not exceptions, but incredible role models that anyone (regardless of their gender) can emulate.
And far more importantly, to the women who do mathematics, or want to do mathematics:
You have everything you need to succeed, simply by virtue of being you and loving the work you do. Make mistakes shamelessly knowing that everyone else is doing the same, and cherish each mistake that you make as an opportunity to learn.
May what you know grow in proportion with what you wish to know, so that every day is an opportunity for you to learn more and remain curious.
And most importantly - never forget that you can absolutely do mathematics.